Social Purity Movement
was a movement to elevate morality and improve the sexual treatment of women, largely through the abolition of prostitution and the double standard.
From the last three decades of the nineteenth century to the end of World War I, an international crusade to purify sexual conduct focused on the need to reeducate society, particularly men, in the control of sexuality. Rooted in earlier women's temperance and moral reform traditions, the American Social Purity movement was influenced by the "rescue" work of British prostitution reformers like Josephine Butler and W.T. Stead and the revelations of international groups for the suppression of "white slavery
Composed of widely diverse groups divided on the issues of free love and women's political and economic rights, the American movement, like its British counterpart, was united in the need for a single moral standard, and the word "chastity" figured frequently in the literature. Because Social Purists believed in woman's need to resist sexual subjection by men, the movement had feminist participation. Suffragists were featured speakers at the first American Purity Congress in Baltimore in 1895, and Purists and feminists alike favored abolition, rather than regulation, of prostitution and moral equality in the relations between the sexes.
Prostitution was clearly the focus of much Social Purity agitation. Americans were particularly effective in combating systems of regulated tolerance. Women's voluntary religious and charitable organizations lobbied successfully to abolish legalized prostitution in St. Louis in the 1870s, and there were no further regulationist attempts in the United States thereafter. From the 1880s onward, Social Purists fought for a variety of abolitionist reforms, including prosecution of customers as well as prostitutes, improved prison conditions and rehabilitation for prostitutes, and centers and activities to safeguard the virtue of urban working girls. Movement advocates were also instrumental in establishing municipal vice commissions, raising the age of consent laws, and passing the 1910 Mann Act.
Since its inception Social Purity was criticized, not without reason, as morally repressive. Women like Deborah Leeds, whose husband, Josiah, was an ally of the nation's chief censor, Anthony Comstock, herself personified the movement's censorship wing with her Department of Pure Literature. However, recent research has demonstrated that the movement was also dedicated to the dissemination of sex hygiene information, suggested by its motto "Purity through knowledge, not innocence through ignorance."
As Linda Gordon has pointed out, the birth control ideas of Social Purists were feminist in that advocates urged voluntary motherhood and woman's control over her own body. Yet Social Purists were opposed to contraception and abortion. Furthermore, their eugenic arguments, which at first were aimed to increase woman's power, foundered in a "cult of motherhood" essentially opposed to woman's professional advancement.
At the core of the Social Purity movement was the conviction that sexuality had to be controlled. Many reformers believed that because incontinence was basically associated with man, it was woman's mission to reeducate him. To the extent that it accepted the idea of feminine moral superiority and, by implication, the traditional "separate sphere" for women, the movement was not fully feminist. Nonetheless, in urging women to resist sexual domination and exploitation, it aided the advancement of feminine autonomy.
Contributed by: LAURA HAPKE
Edward J. Bristow, Vice and Vigilance: Purity Movements in Britain since 1700 (Totowa, N.J., 1977); Linda Gordon, Woman's Body, Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America (New York, 1976); David J. Pivar, Purity Crusade: Sexual Morality and Social Control, 1868-1900 (Westport, Conn., 1973).
Citation: Contributor last name, contributor first name.
"Social Purity Movement." In Women's Studies Encyclopedia,
ed. Helen Tierney. Greenwood Press, 2002.
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